President Trump believes unpredictability is a virtue. During his election campaign, Trump argued that America must “be more unpredictable. We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops? We tell them. We’re sending something else? We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable, and we have to be unpredictable starting now.”
As a business strategy, maybe it’s effective… but in international relations, where the fate of nations are at stake, it seems like a dangerous gambit. Unpredictability can lead to confusion, misunderstandings, and miscalculations. It can also alienate allies, possibly even driving them into the arms of your rivals (see, for example, the rapprochement between the two Koreas).
On the other hand, North Korea has just announced its willingness to hold talks with the US. In 2017, China agreed to unprecedented sanctions against North Korea. Officials in Pyongyang are apparently unsure if Trump is genuinely “nuts” or just pretending to be “crazy” (echoing Nixon’s infamous “madman theory”). So, maybe Trumps tactics are working?
Anyway, maybe it’s unfair to blame global tensions on the current occupant of the White House. After all, it’s not like his predecessors haven’t made questionable decisions. On Barack Obama’s watch, Islamic State carved out a brutal (and thankfully short-lived) caliphate across large swathes of Iraq and Syria. George W. Bush led the United States into military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, now widely regarded as reckless and ill-conceived foreign policy disasters.
Yet Trump’s relentless attacks on the institutions of democracy (the courts, the media, opposition political parties) have been noticed by autocrats and strongmen the world over. The number of journalists imprisoned globally has reached a record high. The term “fake news” is now routinely used to distort the truth and attack political opponents.
Perhaps the most dangerous possibility is that Trump is not unique. What if Trump is the new normal? Even if we accept the notion that it can be advantageous to be the only “crazy guy” in the room, surely that only holds true if the rest of the international system follows somewhat predictable norms and codes of behaviour. If everybody is crazy and unpredictable, is it still a winning strategy?
Has Donald Trump made the world more dangerous? Or is unpredictability a virtue in international relations? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!